It was 2005, some years after the dotcom boom and a financial software house asked Colin to help with a project they just couldn’t seem to deliver.
Colin sat down at the table with the development team and Henry, the Marketing Director. “Ok,” he said, “You’ve been working on this project for three years but haven’t released any software. Can anyone tell me what the problem is?”
Henry spoke up first, “We’ve told them many times what we need but they keep building something totally different.”
Mike, the development team lead, shook his head and said, “Yes, but you keep asking for things that can’t be built!”
After some similar exchanges, the conversation looked like descending into total chaos so Colin held up his hand to get everybody’s attention. “Can you give me an example?” he asked.
“You have to understand we are working in regulated environments,” said Henry, staring angrily at Mike, “this means it’s a massive advantage to us if we can supply a footprint-free application. Anything that needs installing can take months before approval from the customer’s IT department. If we had a web-based product, we could avoid all of that completely. I’ve spoken to so many of our customers and they’ve all said it’s such a great idea. I guarantee we’ll sell thirty thousand licenses in the first month after release”
“We’ve heard all this before!” said Mike with a sigh. ”I keep telling you; it only needs a small download so we can run it as an ActiveX control.”
“You just don’t get it!” said Henry, “What part of footprint-free don’t you understand? Even one single byte has to be approved before it can be installed.”
Colin held up his hand again, “Why do we need an ActiveX control?”
“This is a charting application,” explained Mike, “ActiveX gives us the ability to draw charts and append lines and text to them. These are all features that Mike says are necessary.” “
“What about alternative technologies?” asked Colin, “how about Vector Markup Language? That doesn’t need a download.”
“True, but VML only works in Internet Explorer and we need to support as many browsers as we possibly can,” explained Mike. “Browser compatibility is a big concern for us.”
Ollie, the Operations Manager spoke up, “According to our web stats, ninety-eight percent of the users use Internet Explorer 5.5 and above, so nearly all our clients can use VML”
“If anyone complains, I’ll personally buy them a PC with Internet Explorer installed,” said Henry smiling.
Eventually, the development team agreed to build the project using VML, even though they considered it a legacy technology. As part of the plan for the first release, Colin insisted that Mike, Henry and the CEO met weekly for a ‘show-and-tell’ meeting so they could agree the project was progressing the way they wanted.
All went well and at the end of the scheduled three months, they released the application. “It’s up to you now, Henry,” said Willy, the CEO, at the project launch party. “Mike and his boys have built you exactly what you asked for, now get out there and collect all those license fees you’ve got lined up.”
Three months later Colin sat in on another meeting with the board. “I’m not sure what to say,” said Willy, “Over three years we’ve worked on that project and we’ve sold only two licences. We can’t blame the team, they built exactly what we asked them to and we reviewed the progress every week. What on earth happened, Henry?”
“I’m sorry Willy but I thought if we built it, they would come. Like in ‘Field of Dreams,’ the Kevin Costner film.” said Henry, “All our customers said it was a great idea so I assumed they would buy it but when it came to signing contracts, they seemed to change their minds.”
Willy stood up, “The only consolation is that we now know to stop working on it and concentrate on other projects.”
Colin looked up at him, “This is called failing fast. Early feedback lets us verify our assumptions so we can discard hypotheses that don’t work and concentrate on proven ones. It took us just three months to do that. You spent three years arguing about conflicting assumptions without putting any of them to the test.”
Willy put his head in his hands;” I don’t even want to think how much money we’d have saved if we’d done this three years ago.”